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Crop failure pushes farmers to the brink

Whitefly has destroyed the otherwise robust cotton crop in Punjab, leaving farmers fearing for their livelihood

Akshat Kaushal 

Crop failure pushes farmers to the brink

For the last one month, Jasmit Singh, 20, has rarely left his father, Jaswinder Singh, alone - he fears the 41-year-old farmer might attempt suicide. His fears are not unfounded. News reports say around 15 cotton farmers in Punjab have committed suicide because of the loss caused to their crop by whitefly.

In his village, Mema Sarja, near Bathinda, a cotton farmer recently attempted suicide by drinking the pesticide he had bought for his crop. He survived. Such is the level of mistrust that farmers say the pesticide was heavily adulterated and that's why the person did not die.

Jaswinder Singh is not a poor farmer. He farms around 50 acres and all his implements are mechanised. Until last year, he made enough money. This year, he is bankrupt.

"The whitefly attack has destroyed my 20-acre crop. Last year, from the same area, I sold around 140 quintals of cotton. This year, I have barely managed to sell around 20 quintals," says Jaswinder. He says he owes Rs 7 lakh to moneylenders and a government-owned bank and doesn't know how to repay them.

Indebtedness, various studies have shown, is the largest cause of rural despair, and has driven several farmers to suicide. In other parts of the country, the principal cause of it is the failure of the monsoon rains. Not in Punjab which has a robust irrigation network. Besides, cotton is a hardy crop and doesn't need much water, unlike paddy.

The culprit in Punjab is whitefly. It is a sap-sucking insect that grows on the underside of the plant leaf. As a large number of whiteflies attack a single plant, they are able to decrease the plant's growth. On an average, a whitefly attack can cause a loss of 30-40 per cent in cotton yield. As the insect grows on the underside of the plant leaf, the efficiency of the pesticide decreases a bit as these are sprayed from the top.

Cotton in Punjab is limited to the south-western districts. Bt cotton was introduced here around 2003. As it was resistant to bollworm, it was adapted quickly by the farmers. Though the area under cotton cultivation has not increased much between 2000-01 and 2013-14, the production of cotton has increased at a much faster pace. Since 2000-01, production has gone up from 12 million tonnes to 16.35 million tonnes.

Farmers say that in the third week of August, they began to notice whiteflies on the leaves of the cotton plant. Initially, no alarm was raised as some whitefly attack is inevitable. It is cured with pesticides. But, unlike in the past, this year the pesticides did not work. And whiteflies continued to multiply. Most farmers say they used twice the usual amount of pesticide, but even then the whiteflies persisted.

Rampant adulteration

While it often happens that pests develop some kind of immunity to pesticides, the farmers are convinced that the pesticide they bought this year was adulterated. Though much of the farmers' angst is directed at the government, the business of pesticides is almost fully in private hands: from production to distribution.

The producers insist that the adulteration happens at the dealers' end, the dealers say they have no role to play in it. The Punjab Police has decided to investigate the matter. Recent raids by the police in several districts of Punjab have unearthed illicit factories manufacturing pesticides. That the adulterers may have received some patronage from unscrupulous officers became apparent when an officer of the agriculture department was arrested.

While the blame game continues, the situation on the ground is precarious. Farmers paint a grim picture. They speak of large losses and indebtedness. On an average, most farmers say their yield had fallen 60-70 per cent.

The signs of distress are visible in the field - the cotton crop looks somewhat stunted. Usually, the cotton plant grows to a height of over six feet; this year, it had barely managed to reach 3.5 feet. The rotten leaves, which have turned black from the fungal attack, reveal the loss incurred by the farmers.

The distress among the farmers is also visible in the local market, where very little cotton has arrived from the farms. "The trade has been severely affected," says a trader in Bhatinda's cotton market. "Last year, this market would sell around 1,600 quintals of cotton a day. It has decreased to 100-150 quintal this year. Also, the quality of the cotton which is arriving is poor."

At times, a fall in supply can lead to higher prices, which to some extent mitigates the misery of farmers. This year, the steep fall in supply has not led to any increase in the price, which is at the same level as last year's price of around Rs 4,500 a quintal, perhaps because the crop elsewhere has been bountiful.

Government apathy

Worse, the farmers feel the state government, led by octogenarian Parkash Singh Badal, has been indifferent to their pleas. With elections to the state assembly due in 2017, this could work against the Shromani Akali Dal and Bharatiya Janata Party government.

"This year I spent twice the amount of money I usually spend on pesticides. But even then whitefly destroyed my cotton crop. When this failed, I tried calling the Kisan Call Centre, but no one picked the phone. We even went to the Kisan Kendra in the city, but even there no help was provided," says 29-year-old Arthpal Singh.

The state agriculture department is not willing to take the blame. Instead, officials of the department argue that the weather conditions this year provided the ideal ground for the spread of whitefly.

Darshan Singh, the former head of entomology and dean of Punjab Agriculture University, Ludhiana, disagrees. He says the weather can't be blamed for the present crisis. "I am not prepared to blame the weather. The problem lies with the pesticide. In my brother's cotton farm, we sprayed the pesticide around 10 times. But even then the whiteflies continued to grow."

However, on further questioning, the agriculture department officers agree that there were lapses. For one, adulterated pesticide was present in the market. In Bathinda alone, the agriculture department found 20 of the 450 samples as adulterated. Two, the officials agree that at some places unrecognised Bt cotton seeds were being sold to the farmers.

"I am the only agriculture development officer here and I have to cover 38 villages. Ideally, there should be seven such officers, but the government has not filled these vacancies. Naturally, there will be lapses," says a Punjab government officer who doesn't wish to be named.

There is another view put forward by agriculture scientists such as MS Swaminathan, the father of the Green Revolution. He argues that whenever one dominant pest is controlled through genetic engineering - in this case bollworm - the pest which was not important earlier becomes a threat for the plant.

"The introduction of Bt cotton helped to overcome the problems of bollworms which are also serious pests. Today the cotton farmers are suffering from the twin problems of whitefly attack and low prices," Swaminathan wrote on his website. "Adopting measures for effective plant protection against all the important pests and reducing price volatility are essential for the cotton farmers to get a steady income and the textile trade to get a steady supply of raw material."

The cotton farmers of Punjab would agree.

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First Published: Sat, October 17 2015. 21:55 IST